Week 12 Preview: Can Ravens Finally Beat Bengals?
Though the Pittsburgh Steelers are the most popular pick for being the Baltimore Ravens' top rival, there is another divisional rival with a strong case. That would be the Cincinnati Bengals, a team with a now infamous reputation for dominating in the regular season and underachieving in the postseason.
But unluckily for the Ravens, they have never faced the Bengals in the postseason. In their regular season series, the Bengals have come out on the winning end against the Ravens five consecutive times. You have to go back to November 2013 to see the Ravens' last win against the Bengals, a fingernail-biting 20-17 win that went to overtime after AJ Green caught a Hail Mary touchdown at the end of regulation.
Going back to the start of the Andy Dalton era in 2011, the Bengals are 6-4 versus the Ravens. They have clearly had the Ravens' number in recent years, which is really not that surprising considering that the Bengals have won the AFC North twice in the last three seasons. The Ravens meanwhile, have finished third place in the division for the past three seasons and missed the playoffs twice in that span.
Yet despite all this, Week 12 of the 2016 season may represent the Ravens' best chance to end the Bengals' recent streak of dominance over them. The 5-5 Ravens currently lead the AFC North and are 3-0 in division play. The 3-6-1 Bengals have lost two consecutive games and are 1-4-1 since October began. While they were a 12-4 team and a serious Super Bowl contender last season, they have essentially no margin for error this year as one or two more losses would kill all realistic playoff hopes.
A Ravens win on Sunday would severely damage the Bengals' hope of defending their AFC North title. Obviously, the AFC North is significantly weaker this season as it is the only division in football that doesn't currently have a team with a winning record. A Ravens' win here puts the Bengals 2.5 games behind the Ravens, and possibly also the Steelers, with just five games to go. Those would be nearly impossible odds for this struggling Bengals team to overcome.
A lot of the Bengals' struggles this season have come due to injury. They had a huge blow this past week when their perennial All Pro wide receiver Green suffered a serious hamstring injury that has him week-to-week and very unlikely to play Sunday vs. the Ravens. Running back Giovanni Bernard was lost for the year during the same game when he suffered a torn ACL.
Three other key Bengals are uncertain for Sunday's game. Wide receiver Brandon LaFell is questionable with a knee injury and linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga are questionable as well for the Ravens' game. Any of those three players missing would be a huge blow for the Bengals, especially with Green's injury already highlighting how thin their receiving corps is.
The Ravens are also banged up, though not as badly as the Bengals are. The big injuries to watch this week are cornerback Jimmy Smith and linebacker Elvis Dumervil, both of whom are questionable this week. Smith is still recovering from a back injury that forced him to sit out last week against the Dallas Cowboys. Green's absence helps the Ravens since the Bengals don't have any other receiver that Smith would need to line up against, so he may not even be needed to do much in this game, though his presence would still be welcome given how well Dez Bryant did against the Ravens' secondary last week.
Dumervil has missed five straight with a foot injury and his return could revitalize a pass rush that has 23 sacks through 10 games, good for 12th in the NFL. Dalton has also struggled some this season with pass protection, as he's been sacked 29 times which is the third most in the NFL this season.
On defense, the Ravens will need to contain the two Bengals players that are most likely to be depended on in Green's absence. Tyler Eifert will likely be the top target for the Bengals' 14th ranked passing offense. Even after missing a lot of time due to injury this season, Eifert still remains one of the more dangerous pass catching tight ends in football, as he's only one season removed from a season where he caught 13 touchdowns.
The other Bengal to watch for is running back Jeremy Hill. Bernard's injury leaves the backfield solely in Hill's hands and it could be difficult for him to match up against the Ravens' top-ranked rush defense. Hill has 623 yards and six touchdowns this season, so he's had some success as the Bengals' starting back, with his team ranked 12th in rushing yards per game (113.3).
The Ravens are coming off a game where they allowed 97 rushing yards to Ezekiel Elliott, so they need to rebound and completely shut down Hill in the running game. By doing that, they can make the Bengals one-dimensional and force Dalton to make throws to Eifert or starting rookie wide receiver Tyler Boyd.
If LaFell misses the game, Boyd will be the only Bengals' receiver who starts that has over 10 receptions or 100 receiving yards on the season. Their receiving corps is perilously thin and that is a matchup that should play into the Ravens' hands.
On offense, the Ravens will have a clear mandate to run the ball early and often. The Bengals are ranked 28th against the run, allowing 123.4 rushing yards per game. This could even be the game where rookie Kenneth Dixon breaks out, as he has seen a steady increase in his playing time from week to week. Both him and Terrance West should have good days against the Bengals.
The pass defense is a little more challenging, as it's ranked 13th (248.7 yards per game). Joe Flacco has also been known to have some of his worst games against the Bengals, having thrown 19 interceptions in 15 career matchups against them. It'll be important that he looks to spread the ball out and hopefully get other players involved, besides just Steve Smith Sr. and Mike Wallace, the only two players to have good receiving days against the Cowboys last week.
In the trenches, the Ravens will have to account for disruptive defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Atkins has only 19 tackles, but he is good at stopping run plays and winning battles against offensive linemen. To have success running the ball and keeping Flacco upright, the Ravens will need to contain Atkins.
On paper, this is a Bengals team that is extremely beatable. The Ravens need to avoid the ghosts of recent Bengals games and find a way to execute. With the schedule getting much more difficult in December, the Ravens have to take advantage of the Bengals' recent struggles if they are to keep pace with the Steelers for the AFC North lead.
James Reagan is the lead writer for the Baltimore Ravens on Pro Football Spot and can be followed on Twitter @james__reagan.